William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973) may be set mostly in Georgetown, Washington, D.C., in the (political) heart of America, but it opens in northern Iraq, where the priest Lankester Merrin (Max von Sydow) sees the statue of an ancient demonic evil being unearthed. Some four decades later, Scott Derrickson’s Deliver Us From Evil (2014), though unfolding primarily in New York City, opens in the Iraqi desert in 2010, where three US Marines under fire from local insurgents stumble into a desert cave and become possessed by its resident evil. In both these exorcism films, the devil may be at large in America, but its origin can be traced to the infernal ruins of Mesopotamia – and in Derrickson’s feature, that backstory is invested with a post-9/11 division of the world between West and (Middle) East, where Iraq is literally demonised, and the fears into which the story is tapping map neatly, if uncomfortably, onto contemporary Islamophobia in the United States.
So Nayla Al Khaja’s feature debut Three comes as something of a response, relocating its exorcism narrative from the genre’s American origins to the Arabian Peninsula, and refocusing, from the inside, on local mythology – unlike, say, 2013’s Djinn, which was also produced, shot and set in the United Arab Emirates, but was the last film directed by American director Tobe Hooper, and was written by another outsider, David Tully. Three also features djinns – its title hints at how many – but Al Khaja is a local, in fact the first female filmmaker and producer from the UAE, and has co-written her bilingual, cross-cultural screenplay with American Ben Williams.
In a late sequence from the film, 12-year-old Ahmed (Saul Alzarooni) picks up a letter left for him and his mother Maryam (Faten Ahmed) by the kindly British neurologist Dr Mark Holly (Jefferson Hall) who has loaned them his house while he is away for a fortnight. “Enjoy the change of scenery. Have fun!”, reads the letter, on which Ahmed comments with a laugh: “He left us a note, like in American movies.” This is Three at its most metacinematic, acknowledging both the provenance of exorcism movies as American in origin, and the ‘change of scenery’ that the Dubai setting represents for such tropes and themes (even if much of the film was in fact shot in Bangkok, Thailand).
Certainly The Exorcist offers a template for what unfolds here, as a single mother tries to determine what is happening to her child, this time a boy, but exactly the same age as Regan (Linda Blair) was in Friedkin’s film. Yet as the secularised Maryam consults Holly and other doctors for a diagnosis, and also, at the insistence of her devout, childless sister Noora (Noura Alabed), turns to a series of Mullahs for spiritual guidance and Islamic exorcism rituals, we are seeing dramatised the contradictions in multicultural, metropolitan life in the Emirates, where ancient beliefs and modernity coexist.
Maryam is a thoroughly modern woman, getting by – thriving even – without a husband, while running and expanding her own bakery business. Yet this is a tale of two sisters, and while Maryam, who does not believe in black magic, suggests that “When people get sick, they go to hospitals, not to Mullahs”, conservative, reproachful Noora is suspicious of the ‘western school’ that Ahmed attends, disapproves of the ‘foreigner’ Holly, and holds firmly to the view that “sometimes the old ways are best.”
Ahmed’s increasingly odd behaviours – insomnia, stuttering, hearing voices, violently lashing out – might be explained in part by the absence of a father figure, by the bullying that he suffers at school, by the stresses of approaching adolescence, and by mental illness, but both the superstitious maid Divya (Nirmala Sukul) and Noora immediately insist that he is cursed with an evil eye, and that the same evil eye might soon be cast on Maryam herself.
Maryam may dismiss this suggestion by asking “Why would anyone envy me?”, but in fact it is obvious from the start who might envy Maryam for being both a blessed mother and an independent businesswoman leading a relatively emancipated, liberal life. To its credit, the screenplay of Three is confident enough in this obviousness never to have to spell out the answer in some big, unnecessary reveal. There may or may not be something supernatural happening to Ahmed, but we are left in little doubt that the underlying tensions in this family – and in the pluralist country where they live – are utterly real.
“Young and divorced,” the Mullah Yousef (Mohammad Huthail) will say to Maryam, “Are you a good Muslim?” – as though these things were incompatible. Yet Maryam, even when she has been convinced that Ahmed is possessed, asks more than one Mullah to assist in the exorcism, and the sceptical Dr Holly to attend too. “I want everyone to help me,” Maryam says, hedging her bets between two polarised, perhaps irreconcilable frameworks – one religious and spiritual, the other medical and rational – through which her beloved son’s good health might be secured. It is similar to the double-think in which the heroine of Saïd Belktibia’s Hood Witch (Rokya, 2023), likewise caught between two cultures, must engage as her son too is supposedly possessed.
The two films would make an excellent double-feature (or triple, with Babak Anvari’s Under The Shadow, 2016), exposing female perspectives on Muslim communities that do not always serve women’s interests. After all, this is a world where medicine cannot provide all the answers, yet where (some) Mullahs are venal, manipulative, even malicious. In this ambiguous landscape, Maryam must make her own way and her own choices, even if that means turning her back on tradition and perhaps letting the devil in – or at least having someone’s envious evil eye cast upon her for all that she is becoming.
strap: Nayla Al Khaja’s feature debut relocates exorcism to the Emirates, while diagnosing unresolved contradictions in modern Muslim society
© Anton Bitel